Let's Talk About: Aluminum: A metal with mettle

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Steel isn't just an alloy of iron and carbon; it's the stuff of legend. It's found in tall tales of Joe Magarac, stirring molten iron with his bare hands, and in true tales of millworkers whose hands and hearts built a nation. Today football players test their mettle on the Steelers gridiron.

Aluminum isn't celebrated in folktales or on football jerseys, but like iron it's a key element of regional innovation. Aluminum is the most abundant metal in Earth's crust but doesn't naturally occur as an element. Aluminum readily combines with oxygen. It sometimes crystallizes into rubies, emeralds or sapphires but usually forms a reddish brown rock called bauxite. Pure aluminum was once costly to extract and valued more than gold.

Enter "boy wonder" Charles Martin Hall, who experimented with minerals in his backyard woodshed in Oberlin, Ohio. Inspired by his college chemistry teacher, Mr. Hall extracted pure aluminum cheaply and efficiently in 1886. He was only 22 years old.

Mr. Hall founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., soon renamed the Aluminum Company of America, ALCOA. Lightweight but strong, aluminum was "the Wright stuff" for the very first airplane engine. Today aluminum takes the shape of airplanes and iPods, but this modest metal also chills pop and wraps leftovers.

Environmental conservation was important to Mr. Hall. Aluminum, once extracted, can be recycled over and over. The metal from the pop can you recycle today could be reshaped into a new can and back in your fridge in a couple of months. And today it's cheaper and takes 95 percent less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to extract more from the rock. So reduce, reuse, recycle and retell the tale whiz kid Charles Martin Hall.

Carnegie Science Center presents "Aluminum Soup" -- a real working foundry demonstration where red-hot molten metal is poured before your eyes! Check showtimes at www.carnegiesciencecenter.org.

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